Harlequin Blaze #256
Reissued October 2009 in eBook format
Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Nominee
A modern man.
A medieval babe.
Some long-distance relationships are unbelievable.
LAPD Weapons expert Graham Lawson is in the midst of investigating a case when he’s swept into some kind of elaborate hoax. Because there’s no way he’s in the Middle Ages… even if the setting is pretty authentic. Fortunately, he’s landed in the closet of a delectable gentlewoman named Linnet Welbourne. An excellent vantage point indeed.
Fearing a potentially brutal future, Linnet is desperate to escape. Sure, Graham’s sudden appearance in her wardrobe isn’t exactly part of the plan—yet Linnet trusts the peculiarly attired man. As they flee, Graham inadvertently finds himself opening up a whole new world for Linnet—one free of sexual inhibitions. But even as Linnet’s erotic education begins, Graham’s eye is returning to his own time… and this could be one lesson he can’t finish!
“This playful and charming time-travel combines the action of a contemporary romantic suspense with the setting and atmosphere of a historical around two great characters.” — Romantic Times: 4.5 stars & Top Pick
“Hot love scenes, exciting fight scenes, and heart-wrenching emotional drama…Hidden Obsession is a fantastic mix of two of Ms. Rock’s favorite genres and it shows.” — Cat Cody, Romance Junkies
“The romance and passion between these two is some of the best I have read… a fantastically enjoyable novel.” — Debbie Guyette, Cataromance
“Joanne Rock’s skill shines in this well-written, sensual and suspenseful adventure.” — The Romance Reader’s Collection
“An enchanting read… Hidden Obsession delivers!” — Coffee Time Romance
If there had been even a hint of cosmic order in the universe, Graham Lawson wouldn’t have to show up on a Hollywood set for the rest of his life.
Wrenching his practice sword out of A-list actor Brendan Jameson’s hands before the guy could spend another moment checking out his teeth in the polished reflection, Los Angeles Police Department weapons expert Graham stuffed the blade in its sheath before folding the antique piece in a length of cloth for transport back to his private collection. He couldn’t afford another day away from his current investigation with a new brand of flesh pedaling gang bangers running around LA and keeping his department hopping. Especially since this latest crew of felons had demonstrated a preference for medieval weaponry to inflict twisted sex pain on their victims. They showed a hell of a lot more facility with their arms than pretty-boy Brendan at Graham’s sideline as a weapons consultant for an action-adventure flick.
“See you tomorrow, coach?” Brendan asked, sipping his Evian between bouts of the makeup artist’s brush while he prepped for his close-ups in Studio 3A.
“I don’t know. I think the director said something about shooting the remaining scenes with a copied sword.” Graham zipped the leather satchel he used for transporting an assortment of weapons to and from the set for the past two months. The gig started out as a favor to his ex-girlfriend, a bit-part actress in the film they were shooting and a woman who’d barely waited for Graham to finish his first sword-wielding lesson with the starring actor before she’d thrown herself at Brendan. Currently she stood by the refreshment table, leaning over to push her boobs up for more cleavage.
Nice. The kicker of it all was that Graham had made a three thousand mile relocation from the NYPD to the LAPD in order to be with the woman he’d met while providing extra security to a Manhattan set where she’d had a role in a music video. Good thing he liked the weather out here or he might just have been pissed off at her.
“But what about the choreography of the fight sequences?” Brendan held up a hand to pause the makeup artist in mid sweep of her brush full of bronzer.
Graham couldn’t resent the guy — too much — since Brendan was clueless about Graham’s ex-girlfriend’s maneuvering.
“You’re looking more at ease every day,” Graham fibbed for the greater good. But then, Graham would never be able to think about dividing up action sequences into smaller vignettes to best show off his abs, either. In a world that emphasized how something looked over actual accomplishment though, maybe Brendan had an advantage.
Welcome to Hollywood.
“Killer.” Brendan flashed a thumbs-up sign, tipping off both Graham and his makeup artist that the conversation was over.
Graham’s phone started ringing the moment he finished packing his gear. He answered as he wound his way through the cavernous soundstage toward the studio back lot, his vintage sword secured across his back in a custom made carrying case.
“Lawson.” Blinking against the bright afternoon sun that shone way too often for an east coast transplant, Graham bummed a ride to the parking lot off a gopher speeding by in a golf cart.
Another thing he couldn’t get used to about this city, you had to drive everywhere.
“It’s Miguel. You done playing Gene Kelly yet?”
Graham’s twenty-five year old partner had laughed his ass off at the idea of Brendan Jameson cutting Graham’s action sequence into choreography snippets so he could remember them better.
“I’m getting in the truck now.” Graham floated the golf cart driving kid a few bucks for his trouble and loaded the satchel into the front seat of his Sierra Denali pickup—a kick-ass ride he refused to trade even though it guzzled fuel like there was no tomorrow.
Besides, the truck had proved more loyal than most of the women in his life and that ought to count for something.
“You in the mood to maintain your highbrow commitment to the arts?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“There’s some kind of art exhibit in town called Sex Through the Ages and our guys found a flyer for the thing in a search of a Guardian member’s glove compartment this morning.”
The gang calling themselves the Guardians had upped the stakes two weeks ago when they began kidnapping area women for participation in twisted, occasionally brutal, sex rituals as a form of hazing for their new members. Leads were scarce other than a few instances of weaponry with medieval flare. Maces. Scythes. Or so went the rumors. No old-school weapons had been confiscated, but witnesses claimed to see the tools in a couple of police reports. And then two women who’d escaped the Guardians came home with scythes tattooed on their thighs and tales of lurid and occasionally sadistic sex rites carried out with cultist-attention to detail.
Cops all over the city had moved the case up to their first priority.
“Sex Through the Ages?” Graham pulled out of the studio lot and headed north toward the interstate. “Sounds like a docudrama on pornography. How is that an art exhibit?“
“Beats me. The brochure shows some naked paintings and a kinky costume display, but I figured you’d want to take a look at the medieval section since our guys seem to dig the Crusader tie-in.”
“Right. Where is this place?” Graham didn’t mind the fieldwork since—aside from his crappy sideline as a weapons consultant on the movie— he spent most of his time behind a desk these days. His field of expertise had propelled him through the police ranks with gratifying speed, but there came a point where he missed the time in the field that made the job real. Intense.
“The show is at the Getty Center. There’s an exit for it off the 405.” Miguel started rattling off directions but Graham could picture the place. “It closes at six, though. You’d better step on it.”
“Crap. That was the most important part of this conversation, bud. You’re supposed to lead with the big news and work your way down through the rest.” Graham leaned on the accelerator and hit the passing lane more aggressively since his dashboard clock read 5:40.
“Then you’re really not going to like this.” Miguel cleared his throat and lowered his voice. “Eye witness reports from UCLA campus say the Guardians took two other women from a summer workshop in parapsychology this morning. One of the witnesses got a good look at a weapon they were carrying and I’m going to send it over to you now. It sounded like a scythe when she first described it, but the artist’s picture shows something more unusual.”
“I’m on it.” Graham processed the information as he flew down the highway, the smoggy breeze whipping through the open window of his truck not doing jack to clear his head.
He didn’t know where a bunch of twenty-year-old street thugs were finding the kinds of weapons that few collectors could get their hands on, but obviously the Guardian organization was a hell of a lot more sophisticated than he’d first realized.
Which made them a whole lot more dangerous. And even harder to catch. Graham was pretty damn certain this group wasn’t visiting museums in their spare time for inspiration on their sick rituals, but maybe these guys were pulling research from some B-movie version of battles in the Middle Ages and the helpless role of the village wenches. He’d have to remember to speak to the department’s psych guys about the tight brotherhood mentality of the gang. They might be able to profile their ringleaders a little more narrowly if the Guardians were really grooving on the pseudo-historical roots of their crime ring.
Eighteen minutes later Graham jogged into the J. Paul Getty museum with the valuable historic sword strapped on his back in its protective case. He hadn’t planned to make a stop on the way home and he couldn’t afford to leave a ten thousand dollar weapon unguarded. Now he flashed his badge enough times to warrant the appearance of a management type who understood the need for speed and discretion. After giving the okay to keep the museum open later on a private basis just for the evening, the museum’s assistant director called out a night watchman to show Graham around the Sex Through the Ages exhibit.
The old guy was quiet, which suited Graham fine as he scanned room after room in search of anything that might clue him in to Guardian rituals or shed light on the meaning of the scythe. The drawing Miguel had emailed him had been an oddly shaped halberd with a curved hilt. Similar to a poleax, a halberd could be used as both a dagger and an ax, but the slight arc in the haft was a twist Graham had never come across before. He’d also never seen the style of engraving on the handle, which looked too distinct to mark the piece as an antique, although that might be an exaggeration by the artist to capture details the eyewitness had described.
Knowing the Sex Through the Ages exhibit was probably not the place to find clues about the weapon anyhow, Graham tucked away the PDA with the picture and concentrated on the task at hand. For all he knew, the traveling museum show had been just a matter of curiosity to the suspect who’d had a flyer about it. Graham needed to be open to other leads that didn’t have anything to do with weaponry.
One of the echoing museum halls displayed a history of dildos. Another showcased the development of undergarments meant to tantalize. There was a sprawling section dedicated to porn, but those specialty exhibits were sandwiched between bigger rooms dedicated to various time periods.
Boot soles squeaking on the polished museum floor, Graham made tracks for the Middle Ages area that had been draped with crushed red velvet curtains tied back with golden cord.
Music had been piped in that Graham could only assume was period accurate. The sound of monks chanting acapella provided an interesting accompaniment to racy displays ranging from provocative paintings to drawings of sexual enhancement aids and a PowerPoint projection on a blank wall depicting various methods of medieval birth control, all of which looked fairly revolting.
Why would any of this be interesting to the Guardians? Was there a clue to their sex rites contained in the ten minute narrated slideshow about the subversive sexuality of witch hunts? Would their group care that medieval society blatantly encouraged sex outside marriage in the subtly written code of chivalry?
“Damn.” Graham muttered under his breath, resenting the lost time here if the museum lead turned out to be a dead end.
“Perhaps you would like to see the collection of paintings, sir?” the night watchman asked from a few feet behind. “Some were painted within the time period and others were crafted afterward yet still reflect the medieval sentiment.”
Nodding, Graham shifted the position of the sword sheath on his back and followed the guy past a glass display case of supposed chastity belts along with a disclaimer about the authenticity of the items which many believed a myth. As they reached the wall of paintings, Graham realized the collection resembled nothing he’d ever seen at an art gallery.
Not that he spent much time in museums, but he seemed to recall the general rule of hanging visual art was to give each piece enough white space to appreciate the works individually. Here, the canvases had been hung close together with disparate themes clashing up against one another. The rougher, two-dimensional style of period pieces butted up against soft-focus Victorian interpretations of the Middle Ages.
Graham could scarcely take it all in, other than an overall impression of numerous curvy maidens falling out of their clothes. Knights and peasants, kings and nobles filled out the periphery of the presentation, their swords brandishing at every angle like a field of strutting lovers flexing their he-man prowess in an age old mating call.
“Do you have any questions I can help you with, sir?” the old night watchman asked in his gravelly voice, hands clasped behind his back.
“Not yet.” Graham didn’t know what he was looking for here, but somehow his section of paintings gave him the sense that he’d come closer. Shifting his gaze downward from the sweep of images across the wall, he spotted a weapon similar to the photo Miguel had sent.
A halberd with a slightly curved haft, although the piece bore none of the peculiar chain-link style markings witnesses claimed to have seen on the Guardians’ weapon on the UCLA campus.
Moving closer to inspect the canvas, he squinted into the dark shadows of the artwork but couldn’t make out any more detail. The blade rested at ease against a hay bale while a knight on the other side of the image removed his helm to rest at the side of a country road.
“I don’t get it.” Graham stood back from the painting again to see is he missed something. “How does this picture show anything about sex? Why include something as innocuous as a knight catching a few Zs as part of the exhibit?”
The answers were probably here somewhere on one of the zillion little placards for patrons who wanted a self-guided tour of the Sex Through the Ages show, but Graham didn’t have a lot of time for research with two more women now in the Guardians’ hands.
The watchmen stepped closer, blue eyes keen, as if he’d been eager for an opportunity to share what he knew. The guy probably didn’t get the chance to talk to many people if his shift started at six and the museum closed early three nights a week.
“The growing church frowned on the sexual practices of societies with ancient pagan roots, so we don’t have many records of private life from this time period since works of a corporal nature were often burned or destroyed in the name of protecting the public.”
“Censorship has been around awhile.” Gritting his teeth against his impatience, Graham stuffed his hands in his pockets and waited for more. “Because of revisionist-style censorship, most of our remaining historical evidence is subversive and hints at a society that reveled in its sexuality even as it worked hard to keep their intimate practices behind closed doors.”
“Okay.” Graham paced around another case containing polished wooden dildos. Wooden? “And my apologies for seeming dense, but I still don’t understand any hidden agenda for the knight resting his tired ass at the end of a long tournament day.”
“Perfectly understandable.” The guard adjusted his navy blue cap over wild gray hair escaping at all angles. “And we hope that reinforces our need for placing the paintings at strategic angles, to evoke the way medieval audiences would have viewed the work. You see how the knight setting aside his arms and making himself comfortable is right beside ’Madeline After Prayer’ in which a young woman undresses for bed?”
Graham looked to the left at a richly detailed of woman sliding pearls from her hair, her clothes slipping off her shoulders.
“Well the story behind the painting is that the woman has said a prayer to dream of the man she will marry and her lover has hidden himself in her closet that night to make certain it is he who appears in her thoughts since, he plans to steal into bed with her after watching her undress.” The guard gave a sly smile. “The knight in the other painting hints at the unseen man hidden in this image, waiting within Madeline’s wardrobe.”
“I see.” Finally. Although Graham sure as hell hoped the Guardians left more overt messages in their chain of crimes. “Can you tell me anything about this weapon?”
Pointing to the halberd, he dragged his eyes off buxom young Madeline, an interesting combination of prayerful innocent and lush temptress. Not that Graham was here to gawk at women trapped in old canvas.
“Perhaps, but if I may just point out one more thing you might be interested in here…”
Graham followed the watchman’s finger as he pointed toward some of the details at the edge of Madeline’s image. He leaned in closer to look and then—
The guard shoved him forward with surprising force, propelling him toward the painting. But instead of crashing into the wall of glass that protected all the artwork, Graham found himself hurtling forward through endless darkness until his mind slipped into an even blacker fog than the void through which he traveled.
Ripping off her other slipper, she shot it like an arrow from her fingertips, hitting her lyre with bullseye accuracy and calling forth a discordant twang of the strings. She silently damned both velvet articles along with every other item of clothing her flap-mouthed, onion-eyed, fly-bitten betrothed had given her.
She would have never worn a stitch of it if not for her beslubbering stepbrothers’ insistence this eve.
“May I help you, my lady?” her maid called to her from the door, no doubt dismayed to find herself locked out of Linnet’s chamber for the night. But it served Edana right. Linnet had once been attended by a beloved nurse she’d known since childhood, but these days, her maid was the snippy little sister of the monster Linnet would one day wed.
And “one day” seemed to be approaching too swiftly if reports of her betrothed’s return to England could be trusted.
“No thank you, Edana. I’m sure it will please you to be excused from my company this eve since you find it so loathsome.” Linnet knew she couldn’t lock out the spiteful wench the whole night since all her belongings were in here, but she could not allow the woman’s barbs to spew forth unchecked, either.
“Do you think it wise to anger me, Linnet?” Edana’s words were no less sharp for the barrier of the oak door they passed through, all pretense of servitude vanished in an honest moment since Edana had never felt one bit inclined to “serve” anyone but herself.
“Perhaps you should ask yourself if you think it wise to anger me, Edana, since I am to have the ear of your brother when he returns from war.” God help her. “I think you will find him more kindly disposed to his wife’s wishes than you suspect.”
She lied as smoothly as her morals would allow—which was actually a good deal—but Edana’s only response was a high bark of laughter before she retreated down the corridor away from Linnet’s door. At least Edana didn’t try to pretend that Linnet’s marriage would be a peaceful union the way her brothers did. All three of the elder Welborne males insisted Burke Kendrick would be a good husband to her because of his strength and might, or perhaps because of his wealth and prominence.
But Linnet knew Kendrick’s mercilessness had brought him his coin along with the knights who swore fealty to him. Her stepbrothers had been easily persuaded to part with her when Kendrick had flashed a bit of gold beneath their noses and the promise of new lands.
For their greed, Linnet would one day have to answer to the most brutal man in all of England. And no doubt, she’d have to answer to his insufferable sister as well.
Fumbling with the laces of her gown, Linnet yanked on the ties until she’d freed enough room to step out of her surcoat, another costly gift from her betrothed.
A beautiful body deserves to be beautifully displayed.
Kendrick’s words echoed in her memory, his dark stare unnerving her that day he’d delivered trunk after trunk of new garments more worthy of her. Ha! The man had looked at her as if he’d prefer to see her naked and her stepbrothers had done naught to stop his roving hands. They’d been too busy estimating the cost of the early wedding gifts.
Now, clad in her own undergarments as she readied the chamber for bed, Linnet prayed she would not be visited by more dream visions of her future with him. Nay, she’d rather escape into the more fanciful visions she’d been having lately— images filled with wanton encounters involving a strange man she’d never seen.
Foolishness, surely. But far more pleasant than her real life. She swallowed the burning sensation in the back of her throat at the idea of marriage to a man rumored to have an insatiable appetite for virgins in his bed. Half the serving women at Kendrick Keep had been initiated by him. Even Edana admitted as much.
So, Linnet wondered as she pulled back the bed linens, how would the brute maintain interest in a marriage that would provide him with a virgin only one night?
She did not care about his interest half so much as she cared about protecting her legitimate children from the avarice of a proliferation of her husband’s bastards. She would run anywhere from this marriage—gladly forsake every stupid velvet slipper and golden bauble for her freedom. But Kendrick and her stepbrothers had taken pains to ensure her isolation at her eldest brother’s stronghold on the southern coast.
Escape was impossible.
Pulling the strands of smooth pearls from her hair, Linnet was about to slide beneath her sheets when a rustling noise sounded on the far side of her room. Surely she was full of foolish fancy after brooding about Kendrick, but she could not help the peculiar notion that a man’s eyes followed her once again.